Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956)

Born on 14 April 1891 to a Mahar family inAmbedkar Image Mhow, Maharashtra, Ambedkar rose to become an exemplary scholar, statesman and revolutionary leader in modern India. Fondly remembered today by Dalits as Babasaheb, Ambedkar is a figure whose greatness the rest of India is still struggling to understand. For those who appreciate any comparison of Ambedkar's importance to Dalits with that of anti-racist leaders to Black America, we may say that he was a combination of the scholar W.E.B.duBois, the slave rebel Frederick Douglas and the radical teacher/leader Malcolm X.

Ambedkar ranks easily amongst the most highly educated and erudite leaders of India. He spent many years studying a host of subjects ranging from economics and anthropology to politics, law and religion, in colleges and universities such as Elphinstone College, Bombay where he earned a B.A., Columbia University, USA, from where he earned an M.A. and a Ph.D., London University where he earned a D.Sc. and entrance to the Bar from Grey's Inn, London. Much of Ambedkar's education was made possible by financial support from the Gaikwad of Baroda who was known for his financial contributions to reformers and educators in what was the Bombay Presidency during colonial times.            


Yet, Ambedkar's education did not grant him the status of a fellow human being when he returned to India. Untouchability. practiced by an overwhelming majority of caste Hindus as well as other religious communities, stigmatized him in the most pernicious ways. His own analysis refuted an understanding of untouchability as a racial oppression. He argued instead that it arose as a social, political, religious, and economic separation and denigration of practitioners of Buddhism in the historical period of renascent Hinduism (see his book The Untouchables, 1948). For Ambedkar, Buddhism represented the historical revolutionary experience in India, while Hinduism represented the counter-revolutionary experience seeking to bring back an orthodoxy founded upon the caste system.

Such an understanding of Hinduism was one of the main causes of Ambedkar's strong differences with Gandhi's approach to the struggle against oppressive practices such as untouchability. Throughout his active political life spanning more than three decades, Ambedkar spearheaded an alternative movement against the evils of the caste system--an  alternative that was much more radical in content and modern in vision than the one that Mahatma Gandhi nurtured and led by example. The difference in their approaches is brought out by Dr. Eleanor Zelliot, a pioneer historian of Untouchables/Dalits in Maharashtra:

Ambedkar's programs were intended to integrate the Untouchable into Indian society in modern, not traditional ways, and on as high a level as possible. This goal stood in marked contrast to Gandhi's "Ideal Bhangi" (Harijan, 23 November 1936) who would continue to do sanitation work even though his status would equal that of a Brahmin. Ambedkar's ideal for the depressed [classes] was to "raise their educational standard so that they may know their own conditions, have aspiratiosn to rise to the level of the highest Hindu and be in a position to use political power as a means to that end." Both reformers had a vision of equality, but for Ambedkar equality meant not only equal status of the Varnas, but equal social, political, and economic opportunity for all. Ambedkar planned his porgrams to bring the Untouchable from a stat eof "dehumanization" and "slavery" into one of equality through the use of modern methods based on education and the exercize of legal and political rights. . . .

Ambedkar's adaptation of western concepts to the Indian scene is also reflected int he terms he used to justify Untouchable political rights: democracy, fraternity, and liberty. In his Marathi speeches, Ambedkar conveyed the implication of these concepts in a single word, manuski, that was readily understood by the most illiterate Mahar villager. Although manuski's literal meaning is "human-ness", it serves to evoke feelings of self-respect and human attitudes towards one's fellow [humans]
(From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on the Ambedkar Movement, Eleanor Zelliot, 1992, Manohar Publications: New Delhi)

Ambedkar himself delineated his differences through minute study of Gandhi's vision of an ideal society and the specific practices which Gandhi upheld throughout his life. It is worth quoting a couple of paragraphs from his essay titled Gandhism: The Doom of the Untouchables, which forms part of his larger book titled What the Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables.

On Gandhi's view on the relationship between landlords and tenants

Mr. Gandhi does not wish to hurt the propertied class. He is even more opposed to a campaign against them. He has no passsion for economic equality. referring to the propertied class Mr. gandhi has quite recently said that he does not wish to destroy the hen that lays the golden egg. His solution for the economic conflict between the owners and the workers, between th erich and the poor, between the landlords and the tenants, and between the employers and the employeesis very simple. The owners need not deprive themselves of their porperty. All that they need to do is to declare themselves Trustees for the poor. Of course, the Trust is to be a voluntary one carrying only a spiritual obligation (p. 293)

On Gandhi's support for the Hindu caste system, albeit devoid of untouchability

The social ideal of Gandhism is either caste or varna. Though it may be difficult to say which, there can be no doubt that the social ideal of Gandhism is not democracy. For whether one takes for comparison caste or varna both are fundamentaly opposed to democracy (p. 297). . . . Gandhism is a paradox. It stands for freedom from foreign domination, which means the destruction of the existing political structure of the country. At the same time, it seeks to maintain intact a social structure which permits the dominaiton of one class by another on a heriditary basis which means a perpetual domination of one class by another (p. 302).


The importance of Ambedkar has been recently attacked by certain intellectuals who seem to resent the celebration of Ambedkar on the national level. Dalit assertion is inevitably dealt with violence, both physical as well as ideological. Such times as these demand a nuanced understanding of the different roles which both Gandhi and Ambedkar played in reconstituting an independent India which would be truly free. For, it may be argued that regardless of the real differences between these two inspiring figures of India's struggle for freedom, both of them would represent a severe blow to the foundations of religious fundamentalism as we have come to experience in our midst.    


Major writings:

  1.     Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development
  2.     Annihilation of Caste, with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi
  3.     Riddles of Hinduism
  4.     Buddha or Marx
  5.     What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables
  6.     Who were the Shudras
  7.     The Untouchables


Quotable Quotes:

There is also another difference which is often lost sight of in estimating the courage shown by the social reformer and the political patriot. When the social reformer challenges society ther eis nobody to hail him a martyr. There is nobody even to befriend him. He is loathed and shunned. But when the political patriot challenges Government he has the whole society to support him. He is praised, admired and elevated as the saviour. Who shows more courage--the social reformer who fights alone or the political patriot whoi fights under the cover of vast mass of supporters?

It is undeniable that a party is an essential adjunct to Popular Government. But it is equally undeniable that the rule of a single party is fatal to popular Government. . . .The one party system is being hailed in this country in the name of national solidarity. Those who are doing so are failing to take note of the possibilities of tyranny as well as the possibilities of misdirection of public affairs which is inherent in the one party Government. . . .How under one party government the tyranny of the majorty ceases to be an empty phrase and becomes a menacing fact has been our experience in India under the Congress Regime. . . .

Despotism does not cease to be despotism because it is elective. Nor does despotism become agreeable because the Despots belong to our own kindred. To make it subject to election is no guarantee against despotism. The real guarentee against despotism is to confront it with the possibility of its dethronement, of its being laid low, of its being superseeded by a rival party.

(from the essay Ranade, Gandhi and Jinnah, reproduced in Ambedkar's Collected works vol. 1. The essay was originally an address to the Deccan Sabha of Poona given on 18th January 1940, on the occasion of the 101st birthday of the late Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade)


Major political struggles:

Chowdar Tank struggle

Poona Pact vis a vis Gandhi

Founding of Social and Political Organizations and Parties

Chairman of the Drafting Committee of Indian Constitution

Conversion to Buddhism

Further Reading:
A book by Anand Teltumbde 'Ambedkar' In and For the Post Ambedkar Dalit Movement, published by Sugawa Prakashan, Pune. December 1997.
A paper by Anand Teltumbde Impact of New Economic Reforms on Dalits in India by Anand Teltumbde. Presented at the Seminar on 'Economic Reforms and Dalits in India' Organised by the University of Oxford, Oxford, UK, on November 8, 1996.


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